Holy Terror: Good Friday in Sorrento,Italy

Anything hooded is usually a fashion item best avoided. When the hood is black and covers the face it is positively sinister looking, particularly when paired with a long black soutain and flaming torch.

Every man in Sorrento must own this get up but it is to be hoped that,young or old,they usually keep their costumes in a cupboard and bring them out only on Good Friday. They are the stuff of night terrors.

A brass band played the Death March, Ave Maria and other related classics as hundreds of the hooded walked through the city’s narrow streets. The men carried lanterns, crosses and giant pallets featuring Christ on a bed of thorns and the BVM surrounded by white roses. It was dark and the watching crowd, a mix of locals and tourists,stood in eerie silence as the parade passed. There was some snapping and clicking but the smart phones were unusually subdued,and all smart mouths were shut.

The Cackler and I stood solemnly until the last lantern swung by and we then adjourned for a mezzo litre of vino rosso hoping to miss the stampede from the town square as the faithful and the foreigners scrambled to get back to their cars. Our bar had seats outside but  the weather here has fallen a little short of balmy. The Cackler’s skinny fingers were soon frozen and bleached-bone white. We  finished our wine and began to walk home. We caught up with the end of the parade at the cathedral and heard the benediction before the suffering Christ and his mum were hoisted one last time and hurried back into storage until Sunday.

The mood changed. Choir boys from the front of the procession stripped off their medieval masks and played in the cathedral forecourt, their soutains streaming behind them as they shouted and laughed.  Ritual over,  the men of the town uncloaked, revealing top knots, side burns and earrings. Smoke from cigarettes replaced the church smell of chasubles. In Ferrari bomber jackets, dad sweaters and jeans, they were once more everyday, approachable and ordinary.

We pushed through the press and made it back.to our hotel in one piece. I am in bed now,with my clothes in a pile on the floor. They smell of incense.



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The Mist of A Memory

20140417_123103_resizedWe walked by the Land of Green Ginger and past The Blue Boy and The Star of the West. I have forgotten almost everything I learned at university in Hull but the names of the special street and the city’s old town pubs stay with me still.  The William Wilberforce, named for the Victorian anti-slavery campaigner,is now a Wetherspoon’s chain pub. At least it is still open.

It is 35 years since I was last in Hull city center and the intervening decades have not been particularly kind to either of us. Both of us have had a couple of dodgy makeovers  and  a few substantial knocks: we are not what we were.

In 1979, I was an 19 year old student, fresh faced and optimistic. Poor old Hull was fighting and losing the Cod War with Iceland.  A third of the city worked at sea. When the fishing rights were lost, Hull’s jobs went with them. The city, on England’s grey and blowy east coast, has since been dubbed the worst place in the UK.  Hull suffers soaring rates of crime and obesity. Its schools are more u-bend than sink.

Now, cheeringly, Hull has been designated the 2017 UK City of Culture and so the Hull Truck Theater company, the Ferens art gallery and the whaling museum will presumably be joined by lots of other venues showcasing all kinds of arts and talents. Perhaps the jewelry makers and artists will come back to the Land of Green Ginger.  Perhaps 2017 will be a great year for Hull and for me. I hope so.

We drove up Spring Bank past my student digs in Morpeth Street where I used to share an unspeakable toilet with five boys I didn’t know and one I did.

I wanted to check out the Polar Bear, my regular haunt in my halcyon days in Hull. The pub is still there but no longer opens at lunch time. Unlike the rest of the city, it seems to have weathered the last 35 years remarkably well and, from the outside, was exactly as I remembered. I peered through a window and found the ornate and bulbous Victorian wooden bar just as it was. I saw the rose-pink upholstered crescent-shaped booth where my brown-eyed boyfriend and I used to clutch each other, ham sandwiches and pints of mild at lunchtime. He would lean in close and sing me the songs of Ol’ Blue Eyes. He sounded just as good as Sinatra.

On a dull day on a dilapidated street corner on the outskirts of England I treated myself to a deep purple dream. In the mist of a memory it all wandered back to me, breathing my name and making me wistful for a moment or two.

The jollier pictures below were taken this week in Bridlington, another haunt from student days and cheerfully unchanged.


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Perfect Dinner Companions

” We never run out of conversation,” said John and looked adoringly across the table at his wife. “We’ve lived long enough to have a lot of stories.”

“And we’ve lived long enough to tell each of them a number of times” said Jackie and threw back her beautiful head with a laugh.

John and Jackie were at the table beside me on a quiet night at the Brick House. They live in Itchy Ankle (“112 years in the same house between us,” said John.) but they hadn’t eaten at this restaurant in the last 20 years. “We usually go out in Annapolis or DC” John said, explaining that they’d had car trouble that day, hence the decision to stay close to home. He is 88 and Jackie is 83. They were each enjoying a gin martini. Jackie started with oysters and called for hot sauce. John had cream of crab soup and blackened swordfish.

“We met as art students at the Corcoran, ” said John. “I still tell her she is beautiful.” She still is. He’s not too bad himself.

crab“Do you know the stained glass crab at the Airport?” asked John “Jackie is the artist.”

“He put in the man hours–5550 of them,” said Jackie. “John did the fabrication.”

“Do you always work in stained glass?” I asked.

“No, we work in every medium,” said Jackie. “I wrote and illustrated the Peterson Guide to Shells.”

“How lovely”

shells“I thought so”. She handed John the last of her martini and took a swig of her Sauvignon Blanc.

“Are you celebrating something special?” I asked

“Just life,” said Jackie ” Just living.” They both laughed.

Throughout the meal, they looked at each other and smiled. They shells colorsupplied each other with word here and there when remembering was hard. They were lively in their language, enthusiastic in their reminiscences about past travels, creations and triumphs, and curious to learn about me.

“You made our night,” said John as we ended the evening with hugs.

“You really made mine,” I told him “It’s a tonic to see you together.”

“Our doctor says we’re cute,” said Jackie and laughed again “I like that.”


See more pictures of the BWI crab here

Read more about the BWI crab here.

Buy Jackie’s guide to Shells here.

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“Mammy will have to spank your bottom”

“I love your accent” said Scott as he poured me a mimosa in a pint glass. “Thanks, ” I said wryly “All the gay men do.”

Tom, Mike and I were having a breakfast drink at Annies in Washington DC and I had figured one mimosa couldn’t do any harm. Wrong. Scott added a  long dash of Peach Schnapps to the pint glass and set the tall golden drink on the polished wooden bar. “Happy St. Patrick’s Day.” he said.

“You could make a fortune selling phone sex,” said Scott “Say it after me” ‘Mammy will spank your bottom.’”

Dial 1 800 SEX for Mrs. Doyle

Dial 1 800 SEX for Mrs. Doyle

I couldn’t say it of course. I am much too repressed.

I wonder if Belfast women could get an EU grant to help them develop this marketable skill? If Scott is right, the Ulster economy could be boosted enormously. We are already chatty, and with years of therapy funded from Brussels it might be possible to overcome our inhibitions and learn to talk dirty. Capacity building, that’s what they call it.

I’m not sure it would work though. Callers to Take a Beatin’ or Show Us Your Craic or ‘Bout Ye Big Boy would probably be surprised to have their–eh– flow interrupted by the seductive voice on the end of the line continually asking them to “Houl’ on a wee minute” .

As anyone who has ever conducted a phone conversation with a Belfast woman knows,this phrase will be used several times in the course of an average call.

“Houl’ on a wee minute–I need til get the door”

“Houl’ on a wee minute–the kettle’s just bilin…”

“Houl’ on a wee minute–Corrie’s on the telly”

“Houl’ on a wee minute–I’ve the pan on”

“Houl’ on a wee minute–our Kevin’s just walked in”

There is also a risk that, instead of attending to the matter in hand, the Irish sex worker will go off on a tangent or two:

“Mrs. Birch has gone. Her death was in the paper”

“Have you had your tea?”

and the inevitable:

“My head’s away. Now, what were we talkin’ about?”

Another career door closes. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Select Danny Boy as your ring tone and don’t forget to call your mother.

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The Ugly Language of Free Enterprise

What are the planks of your strategy?

What are the planks of your strategy?

“What are our learnings?” inquired John G. and raised an ironic eyebrow. “We have clarity on what we need to operationalize. We need to own this space,” said John C. and snorted. “Without execution we have nothing to leverage, ” he continued, wryly. The others at Tom and Mike’s famous Wednesday night dinner joined in. There was talk of added value, drivers, synergy, buckets, parking lots, modalities, and optimization. We discussed what would be impacted, injected, energized and grown and of the need to be flexible, adaptive and, inevitably, innovative. We might have to downsize and let people go.  There was a risk that our initiatives could not be monetized, unless we reached out, partnered and integrated. We work for different organizations in many different industries and across at least three sectors but all of us are beset by this dreadful abuse of language.

Office talk is ugly and means almost nothing. I am pretty sure many of these words first

Planning to utlize new platforms?

Planning to utlize new platforms?

appeared on powerpoint slides, created or deployed to save characters and suggest busy self-importance. Once, these bullet-point banalities may have had a supporting narrative but now they roam our corridors and congregate by our water coolers, an independent cluster of vowels and consonants posing as big ideas and calls to action. Unfettered, they rampage through every enterprise, muffling good sense in meetings and protecting against plain speaking and hard work.

What are the phrases that haunt you this strategic planning season? Can you get through your presentation without promising thought-leadership or plundering low-hanging fruit? How will you enhance visibility and build relationships? Do share.

Climb that corporate ladder.

Climb that corporate ladder.

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How to be Happy

A gloom can descend on Itchy Ankle at this time of year, when we don’t quite believe spring is coming, and we are still paying off the bills we ran up over Christmas. Dirty impacted snow lines the roads, the gardens are still bare, and we must complete our taxes. We have segue-wayed from New Year abstinence into the strictures of Lent. It is not a lot of fun.

We are cheering each other up by embarking on the 100 happy days project which invites you to take a photo of something that makes you happy every day for, well, one hundred and take a moment to notice how good it makes you feel. You can keep the photos and the thoughts to yourself, or post them on Facebook or Twitter. It’s up to you.

I learned about the project from my friend Fiona in the UK, who is posting her happy on Facebook. Fiona is both creative and strong-willed and so, by day 3, she was liberally interpreting the rules and had moved on from photos. She posted a poem that made her happy. My kind of woman.

In Itchy Ankle we started on Tuesday. Easy. I tweeted a picture of one of our magnificent sunsets.

On Wednesday, after a happy interlude in the company of my friend Matt  (always worth photographing), I managed to mislay my iphone. Unfortunately, it is the only way I have of taking photos. It seemed like my project was shot. On Thursday, I noticed the sun on my face as I drove to a conference. I didn’t have the phone. On Thursday evening  I enjoyed dinner with 10 of the people from the coaching program I completed 6  years ago. I was wearing a new light wool scarf in beautiful shades of mint green, kingfisher blue and sunset red/gold. Fab scarf, great people, good times. No phone. On Friday, I had great fun in an improv session where it might have been a mistake to take pictures…

Reflecting on all of this last night, I considered that despite all the highs of the last few days, the most happy-making thing of all might have been the absence of the phone. No emails, no texts, no anxiety-inducing phone calls. The phone isn’t mine though. It belongs to my employer and is not the first one I have lost. Worry began to nibble.

Last night, I had a Facebook message from the restaurant where the phone was found. (This is why it pays to follow the places you frequent on social media.) Peace of mind is restored and I have 95 happy days to go.

You can read Fiona’s happy poem—Binker by A. A. Milne–here.






2014-03-08 13.10.15

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Good for the Soul

I am trying to improve my noticing skills and I am also meant to be taking more exercise. IMG_0787The noticing will be helpful for writing and for coaching, and the exercise will be helpful for life. Walking is easier, I find, if I have a camera in my hand. Instead of seeming sluggish when I stop every few steps, it is possible to appear creative and artistic. Thus I went this morning to Quiet Waters Park to notice nature close-up and to take the air.

The outing reminded me of Sunday afternoons when I was a child. We’d bundle into my father’s Ford Capri and go to Belvoir Park, or Cavehill or Tollymore, all within easy reach of home in Belfast. The idea was probably to encourage me to spend time outdoors and away from a book, and to have my rather more boisterous brother and sister tire themselves out. I would hold my mother’s hand and we’d look at plants and flowers close-up, bringing them home to press or for me to show off at school. I can see her now wearing her green anorak and ski pants, and feel the dryness of her houseworked palm. I was usually too hot in an aran sweater under my anorak and my wellies would chafe the back of my heels. My socks would somehow always worm their way down to the sole of my foot, forming sweaty accordian pleats underneath my arches. Really uncomfortable.  The leaf mold often made me sneeze.

My brother and sister would climb over tree trunks, throw sticks and get my dad to teach them how to skim stones. Their coats and sweaters would be quickly discarded. They had proper sneakers. I still don’t own a pair.  My dad usually brought his camera. Perhaps he, like me, needed some reason to walk, to look, and to stop, although pulling focus must have been difficult once he was loaded up with quilted coats and raggedy home knits from offspring 2 and 3.

IMG_0779There are still no leaves on the trees in Maryland, and that means that most of today’s noticing took place at ground level. I saw vines that looked like horses, a fungus shaped like a teapot, and green spores forming cathedral spires on a battered tree stump. I heard a wood pigeon and saw a chaffinch, so much bigger than its British cousin. Quiet Waters. In my head I sang the 23rd Psalm as I walked and noticed and snapped.  My soul was very much restored.

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Celebrating St. Patrick: A Cook’s Guide

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St. Patrick’s Day will fall on a Monday this year, one month from now.  It remains to be seen if revelers will make a long weekend of it, or if the pubs will suffer on March 17. Will workers stop for a drink on their way from (or even to) work or will good sense prevail on the first school night of the week?

photo (13)Here in America much more is made of St. Patrick than was ever the case back home.  Parades, pints and puking are the order of the day. In schools, offices and superstores even people who can’t claim an Irish granny (precious bloody few) wear ginger beards, emerald hats and shamrock-shaped accessories.  As the day progresses, Emergency Rooms fill up with lacerated little people and colleens soaked in sick. It isn’t dignified and I want no part of it. I will spend the Shamrock season cooking the food I grew up with in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the ’60s and ’70s. Why not grab a frying pan and a pound or so of lard and join me? It won’t help your waistline but your liver will thank you.

No Irish person eats corned beef and cabbage. Let’s get that straight from the start. This said, cabbage will be key to getting your celebration started, and will feature in most of your meals.

Take a large green cabbage and turn it on its side.  Cut inch-deep slices. You will use the ones from the middle of the cabbage—brassica at its broadest. (You can keep the top and tail slices for use tomorrow.)  Cut each wide slice in half lengthwise. You should have slabs of cabbage that are each the size of a New York strip.  Slather each side with garlic butter—Kerrygold (which does not sponsor this column, but should) sells it in sticks for just such an occasion. Add coarse black pepper. If you want the cabbage to hold together, cook it in a 400 degree oven for 40 minutes, flipping it half way through.  Serve when the cabbage steaks are soft in the middle and browned on the outside. The cabbage may come apart a bit but it’ll still taste great—garlicky, carmelized and satisfying; a very hearty starter.

You’ll need lamb in some form for the entrée. A leg, or loin chops or a rack. How you cook it will depend on the cut, but don’t overdo it. It should be pink in the middle. Marinades, rubs and other contrivances are unnecessary. Serve with mashed carrots and parsnips or roast the whole vegetables in the oven’s lamb drippings until their outsides are brown and crunchy and their insides steamy soft. Champ is a must—mashed potato with lots of butter, S&P, and chopped scallions.  It sounds ordinary, but champ is the ambrosia of the Irish and you mustn’t miss out.  If you are concerned about cholesterol overload, use a little orange juice instead of butter for the carrot and parsnip mash, but on no account stint with the spuds.   Cote du Rhone will go down well with this. The Irish and the French go back a long way (remember the Huguenots in Norman times and Wolfe Tone’s bon amis in 1789) and it seems only right to honor them by drinking a bottle or two of their best.

No one will have room for dessert but you might want to have an apple crumble handy as it will be popular the following morning with the first cup of tea of the day.

belfast 001 (2)I cannot recommend you start your Saturday with a full Irish breakfast, also known as an Ulster Fry. Sure, you can get your hands on bacon and sausages (links, not patties) and you can throw in a leftover lamb chop or two if you have trouble sourcing blood pudding (black and white). Fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms and a few baked beans won’t do any harm and you have the remains of last night’s champ. Certainly you can take this straight from the fridge, shape it into patties, roll these in flour and fry them in the bacon fat until brown and crispy. But what are you going to do for bread? Soda bread and potato bread will be expected and their absence will cause sorrowing, even keening, if Irish guests are at table. Maudlin behavior should be discouraged so early in the day.

2013-01-03 12.08.31Instead of a fry that falls short, I recommend a green, white and gold hash topped with coarse black pepper and a fried egg. Begin by frying an onion, adding chunks of parsnip, potato, garlic and butternut squash and, when everything is somewhat softened and browned, throwing in some chicken stock and a few handfuls of kale. Put the lid on the pot and keep the whole mixture bubbling until the root vegetables are beginning to lose their shape and the kale is soft and green like a County Down field on a wet morning. Serve with sriracha.  If you are timorous about cooking without a proper recipe, use this one. It also features sausage and beans—always welcome. Enjoy a Black Velvet with breakfast—Guinness, champagne and a suspicion of gin—and then go back to bed for a bit.

Lunch is likely to be late and small.  Make a couple of batches of my Auntie Dot’s wheaten bread and eat a few slices slathered in butter with some shrimp in Marie Rose sauce (mayonnaise, ketchup and a tiny squirt of sriracha if desired). Add a small green salad if you must, but remember that an Irish person would most likely have French fries. For us, no meal is complete without potato. A glass or two of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will compliment this nicely. We Irish are not famous for our own wine.

Time to start on the dinner.  If you didn’t let the whole afternoon get away from you, you could make some stock from last night’s lamb bone and soak some barley and split peas to make soup. A couple of onions, the leftover cabbage, and a few more chopped potatoes, carrots and parsnips will do it.  Leave the barley and peas until they are well swelled and then drain them. Add them to your vegetable broth to cook. Throw in a little flat leaf parsley and serve with wheaten bread and butter.

miami 223Quicker and easier is Nigella Lawson’s  Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad a coleslaw refreshingly unlike the flaccid, gluey abominations found behind most deli counters.  Zingy with lime, hot with sriracha, this dish makes cabbage shreds flit like dancing geisha girls and causes shards of carrot to believe they are agile koi, brilliant lightning or tender flames instead of rather lumpen root vegetables.   Open a bottle or two of Gewurztraminer and no-one will notice you’ve forgotten the potatoes and that there isn’t a pudding.  Fish sauce is fundamental for the dressing.  If anyone queries the Irish authenticity of this dish, tell them it’s Celtic Asian Fusion and remind them this is the 21st century—we are no longer tenant farmers, the Famine is behind us, and we can eat what we like. Never ever miss a chance to take umbrage, cite oppression and put your own spin on a story. Aren’t you Irish after all?

Posted in Cooking with the Crone, Crone in America, Culture with the Crone, food, Tales of a Belfast girlhood, You can take the Crone out of Ireland | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Hearing Dogs–Share the Love

A woman I barely know invited me to a party at her home and explained that this would be a select gathering–just a close-knit group of people from her previous workplace, and me. I was pleased to be included and pretty confident it would be fun. The hostess, Catherine, is Greek and there was a rumor that her mother had been involved in the party prep.   I dared to hope of pastitsio, baklava and something involving lots of lemon, olives and feta cheese. Catherine is upbeat, original and engaging. It seemed likely that her friends would be similarly stimulating company.

As it turned out, I was not the only fresh face, for Tanya had brought Dude, her new hearing dog. Dude, who I think is a retriever/labrador mix, is the color of Greek honey and as mellow as a sunny afternoon at an island Taverna. His job is to alert Tanya when he hears others call her name.  People often forget she’s deaf and stand behind her to ask a question, share a joke or issue an order.  Dude is there to save everyone’s time and the speaker’s embarrassment. Of course, he is on the lookout for danger, and very handy when the smoke alarm goes off at night, or the doorbell rings unexpectedly.

Tanya and DudeAlthough Dude and Tanya have just moved in together, theirs has been an 18 month relationship with Tanya traveling back and fro to California to get to know her dog in his training days.  They are both clearly besotted although Tanya is quick to point out that this is a professional arrangement. “He’s a working dog” she says.

I had never heard of Hearing dogs before meeting Dude and now, as is the way of these things, I suddenly know two. Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes have Rescue.

All three live in Boston and Rescue came to the, well, rescue as Jessica and Patrick worked to create a new normal following the serious injuries they suffered in last year’s Boston Marathon bombing.  Erin and Lynn, two longstanding friends of mine, have spent a lot of time with Jessica and Rescue in the last few weeks, planning and executing a Valentine’s day surprise for Patrick, and an event that is sure to yield lots of new funding for service dogs. Check out the surprise here. 

Catherine’s party delivered the anticipated calorific treats and a number of new friends–funny, smart, warm and cynical people with whom I am glad to be suddenly and unexpectedly in touch. Lynn and Erin’s decision to spend their time and talent to help strangers in a far off city in the week of bad snow has made them new friends and, based on the news pick-up so far this morning, must have generated a lot of interest in service dogs. For Valentine’s day, hold out your hands to friends old or new and, if you can, share the love with organizations training hearing and seeing eye dogs.

Learn more about Canine Companions for Independence.

Learn more about NEADS: Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans.

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I’ve seen pink snow

Feather-light pink flakes swirled in front of my windshield. I considered the situation carefully: the DC metro region has had its share of snow and hail in the last couple of weeks. More bad weather is forecast from Wednesday but none of the weather reports has mentioned pink precipitation.  On the hard shoulder, pink eddies formed into Disney drifts. In front of me, falling fairy flakes lifted and tumbled in the chill wind. As it turned out, this wasn’t a heavenly stunt for Valentine’s week, but a truck leaking polystyrene nuggets from under a badly secured tarp.  An environmental crime I am sure, but a rather jolly start to the morning on the Beltway.

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